The following dialogue between Noam Chomsky and Harvard Educational Review Editors Pepi Leistyna and Stephen Sherblom occurred in the fall of 1994, at Chomsky’s office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In conceptualizing this Special Issue, the Editorial Board thought it imperative to frame the lives of youth within an interdisciplinary perspective that explores and lays bare the historical, sociopolitical, economic, ideological, and cultural conditions of U.S. society. Chomsky’s prolific work accomplishes this in many important respects; however, his political critiques and insights have been almost entirely excluded from national efforts to understand community disintegration and address issues of youth violence. It is the Board’s belief that by bringing Chomsky’s critical perspectives, concerns and outlooks to the center of educational debates we can better understand the complex roots and history of violence in this country, and thus better inform educators of the current social contexts in which children live.
The dialogue begins by confronting the dominant ideologies that drive our history of systemic inequalities, oppression, and sanctioned violence that have resulted in this country’s current culture of violence. Moving from a discussion of how the poor and middle-class in the United Slates subsidize the rich, to how the media and public institutions such as schools function to manufacture public consent for, and complicity with, such unequal distribution of power and wealth, Chomsky concludes with a discussion of the possibilities for progressive social change. Throughout, the dialogue vividly illustrates how we as a society often work against the values that we publicly profess, such as the growth and health of children, the social and economic well-being of all people, and the basic tenets of democracy.
As participants in this dialogue, Editors Sherblom and Leistyna acknowledge their understanding of violence as endemic to unequal and exclusionary economic and social structures. This understanding and their commitment to social transformation shaped both the flavor of the questions and the evolution of the discussion, and may not reflect the opinion of the full Board of the Harvard Educational Review.
The Board sincerely hopes that the following will contribute significantly to meaningful public dialogue, support the development and implementation of social policy that will reduce violence in the lives of youth, and work toward realizing a vision of a society without violence.
While the media portray violence as if it’s a new epidemic in this country, your work has shown that historically the United States has been based on a “culture of violence.” Could you elaborate as to what you feel are the actual ideological and systemic elements that inform the history of violence in our society?
The entire history of this country has been driven by violence. The whole power structure and economic system was based essentially on the extermination of the native populations and the bringing of slaves. The Industrial Revolution was based on cheap cotton, which wasn’t kept cheap by market principles but by conquest. It was kept cheap by the use of land stolen from the indigenous populations and then by the cheap labor of those exploited in slavery. The subsequent conquest of the West was also very brutal. After reaching the end of the frontier, we just went on conquering more and more–the Philippines, Hawaii, Latin America, and so on. In fact, there is a continuous strain of violence in U.S. military history from “Indian fighting” right up through the war in Vietnam. The guys who were involved in “Indian fighting” are the guys who went to the Philippines, where they carried out a massive slaughter; and the same people who had just been tried for war crimes in the Philippines went on to Haiti, where they carried out another slaughter. This goes on right up through Vietnam. If you look at the popular literature on Vietnam, it’s full of “We’re chasing Indians.” But that’s only one strain of the institutionalized brutality in our history.
Internally, American society has also been very violent. Take the labor history. U.S. workers were very late in getting the kind of rights that were achieved in other industrial societies. It wasn’t until the 1930s that U.S. workers got the minimal rights that were more or less standard in Europe decades earlier. But that period of development in the United States was also much more violent than Europe’s. If I remember the numbers correctly, about seven hundred American workers were killed by security forces in the early part of this century. And even into the late 1930s, workers were still getting killed by the police and by the security forces during strikes. Nothing like that was happening in Europe; even the right-wing British press was appalled by the brutal treatment of American strikers.
There have been other sources of violence as well; for example, the ways that a large part of the population is systematically marginalized in this society. We’re again different from other industrial societies in that we don’t have much of a social contract. So if you compare us even with, say, Canada, Europe, or Japan, there is a kind of a social contract that was achieved in these industrial societies concerning public welfare, such as health care. European societies grew out of a social framework that included feudal structures, church structures, and all sorts of other things. And the business classes in Europe, as they came along, made various accommodations with these existing structures, resulting in a more complex society than we have here in the United States, where the business class just took over. It was kind of like we started afresh, creating a new society, and the only organized force was a very highly class-conscious business community. Because the United States is essentially a business-run society, much more so than others, we’re the only industrial nation that doesn’t have some sort of guaranteed health insurance. In many respects we’re just off the spectrum, which is pretty striking considering we’re also the richest society by far. Despite being the richest society we have twice the poverty rate of any other industrial nation, and much higher rates of incarceration. In fact, we’re the highest in the world and both will continue to worsen in light of the Gingrich “Contract with America” and the new crime bill. Out of these sociohistorical and economic structures, which embrace conquest and an indifference to public welfare, comes a streak of violence.
From the very roots of this country we see that capitalism and so-called “free-market” practices have worked to benefit the prosperous few who manage the economy and dictate social policy. In your estimation, where on the spectrum of capitalist practices is the United States presently situated?
In a real capitalist society, the only rights you have would be the rights you get on the labor market. There are no other rights, certainly no human rights. In fact, it’s classical economics, but no society could realistically survive that way, though we’re closer to that than most others. However, in our system, there is a double standard. The poor, more than anyone, get the rights they can achieve on the labor market, but for the rich, there’s powerful state protection. They’ve never been willing to accept market discipline. The United States has, from its origins, been a highly protectionist society with very high tariffs and massive subsidies for the rich. It’s a huge welfare state for the rich, and society ends up being very polarized. Despite the New Deal, and the Great Society measures in the 1960s, which attempted to move the United States toward the social contracts of the other industrial nations; we still have the highest social and economic inequality, and such polarization is increasing very sharply. These factors–high polarization, a welfare state for the rich, and marginalization of parts of the population–have their effects.
One effect is a lot of crime. You have people who are cooped up in urban slums, which are basically concentration camps, while the rich protect themselves in affluent areas, which are often, in fact, subsidized by the poor. In the 1980s and the 1990s it’s been quite striking how much the polarization has increased. A symbol of this is Newt Gingrich, who now is spearheading the “get the government off our backs” campaign. If you look carefully, it again is a double standard. He wants the government “off our backs” when its policies assist the poor, but he wants the government “on our backs” if it’s benefitting rich people. In fact, his district, a very wealthy suburb of Atlanta, gets more federal subsidies–taxpayers’ money–than any suburban county in the country, outside the federal system itself. This rich suburb is carefully insulated from the downtown, so you don’t get any poor Blacks coming in there. And here’s Gingrich saying, “Get the government off our backs.” Well, that tells you exactly what it’s all about. You get the government out of the business of helping poor people, but make sure it’s in the business of helping the rich. And, in fact, once again, if you look at this Republican Contract with America, that’s exactly what it says. It’s cutting social spending for the poor, but increasing welfare for the rich. That’s inevitably going to lead to increased polarization, resentment, brutality, and violence.
How does the money flow from the poor to the rich?
Here we are at MIT, which is part of the system whereby poor people fund high technology industries. We have offices and things because the whole system of public funding, meaning taxpayers, ends up supporting research and development. If it’s profitable, the technology goes right off to the big corporations.
There sure are a lot of government license plates out in the parking lots.
Yeah, but it isn’t just government license plates, they’re simply part of the whole system by which the poor subsidize the rich. And in fact, it was perfectly, consciously designed that way. If you look back to the business press in the late 1940s, they are absolutely frank about it. They said, Look, advanced industry can’t survive in an unsubsidized, competitive “free enterprise” economy, in a true market–the government has to be “the savior.” And how do you do it? Well, they talked about various methods, but the obvious method was the Pentagon system, which largely functions as a way of subsidizing the rich. That’s why it hasn’t declined substantially with the end of the Cold War. There was all this talk about defending ourselves from the Russians. Okay, now that the Russians are no longer a threat, has the Pentagon system gone? No, the U.S. is still spending almost as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. And anyone in industry knows why. There’s no other way to force people to pay the costs of high-tech industry.
Take Newt Gingrich, for example. The biggest employer in his district happens to be Lockheed. Well, what’s Lockheed? That’s a publicly subsidized corporation. Lockheed wouldn’t exist for five minutes if it wasn’t for the public subsidy under the pretext of defense, but that’s just a joke. The United States hasn’t faced a threat probably since the War of 1812. Certainly there’s no threat now. We’re not as threatened as the rest of the world combined. In fact, an awful lot of the production of arms is sold to other countries. If anything, that increases any threat. So the whole thing has nothing to do with threats and security; it’s a joke. In fact, that was always known. If you go back to the late 1940s, the first Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, said publicly, I think in Congress,–Look, the word to use is not “subsidy,” the word to use is “security.” That’s the way we’ll make sure that the advanced industry gets going. That’s how the aircraft industry works, that’s how the computer and electronics industries work also. About 85 percent of research and development in electronics was funded by the government in the 1950s.
Take, as another example, the research and development of automation. The apologists for our system say that the creation of automation is the result of “market principles.” That’s just baloney. Automation was so inefficient that it had to be developed in the state system for several decades -it was developed by the Air Force. The same holds true for containerization; trade looks efficient because we have container ships. How were container ships developed? Not through the market; they were developed by the Navy, through a public subsidy. They don’t have to worry about costs, because the public’s paying. Now that it’s profitable it’s turned over to “private enterprise,” and is used to undermine working people who funded it. Automation is now putting people out of work.
Can you elaborate on other ways that the privileged benefit from this enormous system of subsidies?
On top of the Pentagon system there are the straight welfare payments. If you have a home mortgage, you get a tax rebate. A tax rebate is exactly equivalent to a welfare payment. It’s exactly the same if I don’t give the government $100 or if the government does gives me $100. Well, who do home mortgage loans go to? These go overwhelmingly to the privileged. In fact, about 80 percent of them go to people with incomes over $50,000, and as you go into the higher tax brackets, it’s skewed even more. Or take business expenses as tax write-offs, for example. If you take your friends out to a ballgame or something like that, for so-called business purposes, that’s paid for by the taxpayer. If you look at that whole range of expenditures, which are the exact equivalent of welfare payments, they far outweigh welfare payments to the poor. And these expenditures are going to be increased, because the Republican Contract with America will increase military spending, and increase the regressive fiscal measures that amount to welfare for the rich. They want to give subsidies for business investment and cut back capital gains taxes. Those are subsidies to the wealthy.
So, as the society gets more polarized and more people are marginalized, and people are working harder just to stay where they are, social relations further crumble to a point where you get a lot of violence. Actually, it’s amazing that despite all this, if you look at, say, FBI statistics, the level of violence hasn’t changed very much. There’s probably more violence among eleven-year-olds than there was, but there’s less violence in other places. And the violence among the eleven-year-olds is a result of the Reagan and Gingrich war against families.
What are some of the central ways that these social and economic policies and practices affect the lives of youth in this country?
One aspect of this, specifically with regard to children, is something that isn’t discussed much here in the United States. There’s been a war against children and families for the last fifteen years, a real war. There’s an interesting study of this by UNICEF, completed about a year ago, called “Child Neglect in Rich Societies,” written by a well-known American economist, Sylvia Ann Hewlett. She compares what has happened to children and families in the last fifteen years in rich societies, and she finds that the results break pretty sharply into two models. The European/Japanese model was supportive of families, with day-care systems and prenatal care, and other such benefits. Whereas the Reagan/Thatcher model, which extended to some extent to the other English-speaking societies, tended to force families into using privatized child care without other support systems. One of the reasons child care was impossible to afford was because wages were being driven down. That means that there are plenty of families where you have to have a husband and a wife working fifty or sixty hours a week just to provide necessities. Perhaps much of one person’s salary is going to pay day-care. With very little in the way of a public support system, they can’t get such things as health insurance because it costs too much. Well, the effect of this, which Hewlett describes in this study, is quite obvious–kids are left on their own, unsupervised and unprotected much more in the Anglo-American model than in the European/Japanese model. There are a lot more latch-key children, T.V. as baby-sitter, and that sort of thing going on here in the United States. Actually, she reports that contact hours between parents and children in the United States decreased by about 40 percent since about 1960. High-quality contact, where you really pay attention to each other, has declined very, very sharply. The effects of all that are completely obvious–you get violence against children and violence by children. You also get substance abuse. All of these are obvious consequences of that social policy. If kids are neglected, with no care and guidance, they’re going to be either watching television or wandering around the streets.
When you put this together with the effects of poverty, discrimination, and racism, and all the other unmet social needs such as quality schooling and economic opportunity, the violence being done to children will inevitably be a catalyst for a rise in violence by children. It’s clear that this kind of monopolistic capitalism that you’re talking about destroys community even at its most basic level–the family. Despite all the national attention on violence and youth, and a growing body of literature in the social sciences documenting the unmet needs of so many youth in this country, it is amazing how few links are made in the national debates, including those in the academy, between government policies that hurt children and families and the increasing violence involving youth. And we’ve only just started to see the beginning of it.
Oh yeah! It’s going to get worse because now they want to extend the war against families in the name of “family values,” and they will get away with it, just as Newt Gingrich got away with representing the most subsidized district in the country while he was claiming “we don’t want federal subsidies.” Now, how do they get away with it? Well, I think the explanation is pretty simple. The political opposition, though they could have made hay out of Gingrich or out of “family values,” basically agrees with him. There’s a class interest in common. They don’t want to expose the fact that there are public subsidies for the rich because they’re in favor of them. And they don’t want to expose the fact that there’s a war against families and children because they agree with it. So they’re not exposing it. The Gingrich case is particularly interesting, because he is slaughtering the Democrats, but even their interest in political survival didn’t override their class interest in not exposing what was going on. The two political parties are more or less united in subsidizing the rich.
The political right seeks to distract the public from these issues by preaching that a stimulated market will be the answer to our social problems. How could the state of the market possibly resolve the violence of racism, illiteracy, and poverty? It certainly didn’t in the “prosperous” years following World War II. How can the market solve what it in fact creates?
Maybe people talk themselves into believing that the market is the solution, but the reason they believe it is because the actual system is going to enrich them. They refuse to accept market discipline for themselves, though they insist on imposing it on others. There’s almost nobody who advocates market discipline for themselves; it’s always for someone else. And that’s not because they’ve figured out that the market is going to solve problems, it’s because that double-edged policy is going to enrich them. Adam Smith talks about this; these are truisms.
One major detrimental result of capitalist social relations, which emphasizes money and acquisition over caring for people’s basic needs and fostering community, is that it works to fashion children’s identities, and the ways in which they interact socially, around the excesses of marketing and consumption.
One of the things that is indeed fostered, and has been for centuries, is mindless consumerism. It was understood a long time ago that you can’t force people to work unless you trap them into wanting commodities. That goes right through the Industrial Revolution–from early England right up to today. So you have to put enormous amounts of effort into atomizing people, breaking down social relations, making sure there aren’t other ways of realizing their interests and concerns, and optimally turning them into atoms of consumption and tools of production. That would be the perfect thing, and an enormous amount of effort goes into that. Take, for example, the information highway; it’s probably going to end up being a home shopping service because that’s a terrific way to atomize people and make them consume more. Therefore, consumers have got to work more, while they are making less pay, and for the business class trying to enrich themselves, this is perfect. And the propaganda that goes into this is extreme. The public relations industry spends billions of dollars a year, essentially, trying to convince people that they need things that they don’t want. Those things are part of the technique of breaking down social relations, making people feel that the only thing that matters is getting more than your neighbor. This diminishes social interaction, feelings of solidarity, sympathy, and support. And, in fact, that provides a backdrop for violence.
Which most people don’t seem to understand. If you are taught to believe that the meaning in life resides in getting status, Power, and money, and not in the development of quality relationships with others, you’re likely to hurt people to get what you want. When an eleven-year-old kills another kid for a pair of sneakers, people generally respond, “I can’t imagine how this could happen.”
Why not? We’re telling this eleven-year-old through television, You’re not a real man unless you wear the sneakers that some basketball hero wears.” And you also look around you and see who gets ahead–the guys who play by the rules of “get for yourself as much as you can”–so, here’s the easy way to do it. Kids notice everybody else is robbing too, including the guys in the rich penthouses, so why shouldn’t they? The rich guys do it their way and the eleven-year-old does it his way.
Well, look what they are telling the rest of the population! They’re telling them that someone else, other than the rich, is responsible for the social demise. In fact, conservative mainstream arguments contend that violence and drug abuse are simply the result of the lack of family values. Such arguments contend that women working outside the home are responsible for the breakdown of families. Oppressed groups, portrayed as “lazy freeloaders,” and those disgracefully referred to as “illegal aliens” are also targeted. Would you comment on the ability and purpose of those in power to create and punish scapegoats in this fashion?
Those are indeed the arguments, but every single one of them is utterly ludicrous. For instance, if women who want to stay home and take care of their children are being forced into the marketplace, that’s because the Republicans’ social policies drive down wages, so you can only survive by having two members of the family work. As I mentioned before, if there’s no care for children,–that’s because we don’t provide child support.
This building up of scapegoats and fear is standard. If you’re stomping on people’s faces, you don’t want them to notice that; you want them to be afraid of somebody else–Jews, homosexuals, welfare queens, immigrants, whoever it is. That’s how Hitler got to power, and in fact he became the most popular leader in German history. People are scared, they’re upset, the world isn’t working, and they don’t like the way things are. You don’t want people to look at the actual source of power, that’s much too dangerous, so, therefore, you need to have them blame or be frightened of someone else.
So it not only justifies the violence against the scapegoats, but diverts attention from the other violence being done to the general population.
Diverts attention, sure. In fact you can see this very clearly in polls. People have repeatedly been asked to estimate how they think the federal budget is spent. In fact, of the discretionary funds, over half is military spending. But under a third of the population knows that. Many pick foreign aid–which is undetectable. And they very much overestimate the welfare that goes to, say, “Black mothers with Cadillacs.” These are the things that people believe. They believe that they’re working hard, and that their money is being taken and given to poor people overseas, and to Black women who refuse to work and just keep “breeding.” The fact is that their money is going to Newt Gingrich’s constituents through the Pentagon system. Scapegoating certainly serves that purpose.
It’s just amazing how something like California Proposition 187 is so openly racist and, in a time of so-called “family values,” actually contributes to the disintegration of families. While the cheap labor of “illegal immigrants” is a staple of the California economy, the state doesn’t want to provide much-needed social services to that labor force, such as education and health-care for children. Pete Wilson’s entire political platform was based on this scapegoating. Conservative media representations of “illegal aliens” continually work to convince the general public that they are somehow responsible for this country’s multi-trillion dollar debt.
Which Reagan and Reaganites created. And did on purpose, because they wanted to cut back social spending.
Which is something we never hear from the Democrats.
Rarely, because they agree. Look, there was a Democratic Congress–they basically went along with the policies because they more or less agreed with them. And they all represent more or less the same class. There are, to be sure, important differences: Ted Kennedy isn’t the same as Newt Gingrich. But there’s enough commonality of interests that they’re not going to expose each other very much, any more than they exposed Gingrich this time around. I mean, he was wiping them out on this big government business. I never saw one person point out, “You’re the biggest exponent of the welfare state!”
One consequence of this unwillingness to speak the truth is that the present Republican emphasis on creating prisons and employing more police is falsely legitimized. You mentioned earlier the dramatic increase in incarceration. According to the U.S. Justice Department, there are well over a million people presently in prison. Increasing the number of prisons and police are certainly only short-term solutions that serve to divert attention from the real causes of drug abuse, crime, and violence. People being “criminalized” are being scapegoated and incarceration becomes the big business solution to “the problem. “
Exactly, for example the drug war, which was almost completely phony, was simply used as a technique of incarceration. There was a huge increase in imprisonment during the Reagan years, and some enormous percentage of it, like two-thirds, was for drug use. And most of it isn’t even crime–it’s victimless crime, like catching somebody with a joint in their pocket. In fact, if you look in the federal prisons, you don’t find many bankers and chemical corporation executives and so on, although they’re involved in the drug racket. Banks are involved in money laundering, and government agencies pointed out years ago that the big chemical corporations are exporting chemicals to Latin America way beyond any industrial use. What they’re exporting, in fact, is what’s used for commercial production of drugs. But the idea is to go after the Black kid on the corner in the ghetto, because he’s the one you want to get rid of. For example, take cocaine. The drug most often used in the ghettos is crack; in the White suburbs, it’s powder. Well, you know, the way the laws are crafted, powdered cocaine gets much less of a sentence than crack cocaine. That’s social policy. It’s part of criminalizing the “irrelevant” population; even drugs are used for that purpose. Thus, incarceration is a technique for social control. It’s the counterpart in a rich society of the death squads in a poor society. You throw them in jail if you can’t figure out what else to do with them.
Wouldn’t you say that the same is true of the “war on drugs” abroad?
Yes, it has little effect on the production and sale of drugs, but has lots of effect on controlling people. So, in Colombia, the counter-insurgency war has had no effect on drug production; it’s had a huge effect on slaughter and controlling the population. In fact, Colombia’s now the biggest human rights violator in the hemisphere, with a hideous record of atrocities. And it’s also the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, more than half for the entire hemisphere. Has that stopped the flow of drugs? Of course not. Although it’s kind of interesting what has happened, if you look at the details. There were two big drug cartels in Columbia–the Medellin and Cali cartels. In this so-called “war on drugs,” the Medellin cartel was more or less wiped out. The Cali cartel, however, was untouched, and, in fact, much enriched. There was a recent report by a Jesuit-based peace and justice group in Colombia about this matter. They point out that the Medellin cartel was kind of pre-capitalist. It’s similar to the Mafia in Sicily. It had partially lower class origins, and the guys who were running it were like the city boss type. For example, Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel, would build a soccer stadium for the poor people. In fact, they were very popular because of their social roots and because there was something of a Robin Hood quality to them. Not that they were nice guys or anything, but that was the kind of crime it was. Now Cali is different, that’s just rich business–bankers, industrialists, and big business enterprises. So while the Medellin cartel was being wiped out, the Cali cartel was untouched and their power was increased.
Just to give you an example of what a joke the drug war is: in the mid-1980s, Colombia requested from the Reagan administration technical aid for a radar station to detect low-flying planes that were coming in from the Andean region, bringing in coca leaves, which were then processed. The Reagan administration agreed, and they built a radar station, but they built it on the part of Colombian territory that is as remote as possible from the drug routes. Namely, they built it out on an island, called San Andres, which happens to be off the coast of Nicaragua. If you think about the map, that’s the opposite place from where the drug flights are coming. But it was very useful for surveillance of Nicaragua, and for sending terrorist forces to destroy health clinics and so forth. So that’s the way they fought the drug war. And it just works across the board. It’s an absolute farce, except that it’s serving its purpose. Its purpose in this country is to criminalize Blacks and other marginalized groups, to treat them like a population under military occupation, to lock them up, in effect without constitutional rights, and race and class are closely enough correlated in the United States, so that this is also part of the class war.
A great deal of your work, including Media Propaganda, Necessary Illusions, Thought Control in Democratic Societies, and Manufacturing Consent, discusses the role of the media in colonizing the psyche and the social relations of the larger public sphere, in terms of getting people to buy into some of the malignant myths we’ve discussed. You state in your book, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, that the sectors of the doctrinal system serve to divert the unwashed masses and reinforce the basic social values–passivity, submissiveness to authority, the overriding virtue of greed and personal gain, lack of concern for others, fear of real or imagined enemies, etc. The goal is to keep the bewildered herd bewildered. It’s unnecessary for them to trouble themselves with what’s happening in the world. In fact, it’s undesirable. If they see too much of reality, they, may set themselves to change it.
The Gulf War is a perfect illustration of how the state and the media worked to divert the masses. The strategy was to demonize and, thus, dehumanize the Iraqis in or to mobilize the U.S. population in support of what really were foreign economic adventures, shrouded in the idealistic rhetoric of defending democracy.
The public relations industry–a U.S. creation–is very aware that their job is controlling the population. But, we shouldn’t overestimate its success. This is a very heavily polled society, and most of the polls are done for business because the public relations industry wants to know how to craft the propaganda. There’s a ton of information on public attitudes. Take the Gulf War, for example. The polls that were taken two or three days before the bombing found the population to be two to one in favor of a negotiated settlement. Those two-thirds who came out in favor of negotiating a settlement did not, when they described their position, know that was also Iraq’s position. Iraq had, in fact, put that position on the table, and the United States had simply rebuffed it because they didn’t want to negotiate a withdrawal. If the population had known those facts, which were very carefully concealed–I believe they only appeared in one newspaper in the United States–the results wouldn’t have been two to one, they probably would have been twenty to one. And the same is true on other issues. Take, say, the economic system. Over 80 percent of the population regard it as inherently unfair. In addition, the political system–everyone knows it’s regarded as a joke. On issue after issue, the public is not in line with elite opinion, but the public is marginalized.
This business about “the bewildered herd”–I didn’t make that phrase up–that’s Walter Lippmann, the dean of American journalists, in his “progressive” essays on “democracy.” He said that we have to protect ourselves from “the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” “we” being the smart guys who are supposed to run things; we’ve got to make sure the bewildered herd doesn’t get in our way. Perhaps 90 percent of the population, “they’re bewildered,” and we’re going to keep them bewildered because, as he put it pretty frankly, in a democracy, the public has the role of “spectators” but not “participants.” “We,” the elite 10 percent or so, are the participants. “We” are the “responsible men.” And that’s the “progressive” fringe; reactionaries are even worse. And that’s understandable, because if people knew what was going on and they acted on their own motives, that would dismantle the system of privilege. Not many people would be happy to know that they’re paying taxes so that the people in Newt Gingrich’s rich suburb can get even richer. If they found that out, there would be changes.
How do schools and institutions of education–which play a significant role in the ongoing formative nature of culture, identity, and social relations by directly influencing children’s ways of seeing themselves and others in the world–contribute to this colonizing of people’s minds?
Well, every possible way. It starts in kindergarten: the school system tries to repress independence, it tries to teach obedience. Kids, and other people, are not induced to challenge and question, but the contrary. If you start questioning, you’re a behavioral problem or something like that; you’ve got to be disciplined. You’re supposed to repeat, obey, follow orders, and so on. When you get over to the more totalitarian end, like the Newt Gingriches, they actually want to do things like coerce kids into praying, and they call it voluntary. But you know, you have a six-year-old kid who’s got a choice of praying like everyone else or walking out of the room, it’s not voluntary and those demanding school prayer know it. Such forms of state coercion and imposing discipline would absolutely horrify the “founding fathers,” not that Gingrich cares one way or the other.
How does this “manufacturing of consent” happen in the larger social and political spheres, and in business and corporate sectors?
When you talk about the state and the business community in the United States, it’s extremely hard to separate them. The state is overwhelmingly penetrated and dominated by the corporate sector; the financial and corporate institutions have most of the top decisionmaking positions, so it’s very hard to disentangle the corporate sector and the state. They’re different manifestations of very closely related things. The media are another part of this. The media are big corporations that sell audiences to other businesses. An example of this manufacturing of consent was in yesterday’s paper, where you’ll find Elaine Sciolino, chief intellectual in the New York Times, describing Clinton’s Indonesia trip, and she describes how his big achievement there was that he was able to get jobs for Americans. How did he get jobs for Americans? Well, by implementing a $35 billion deal whereby Exxon Corporation develops natural gas fields in Indonesia. Is that going to be jobs for Americans? A couple of American executives and some public relations firms, and maybe some corporate law firms, but it’s going to give jobs to very few Americans. On the other hand, it’s going to give profits to quite a lot of rich Americans; but you’re not allowed to mention the word “profits.” That’s a dirty word. So, it can’t be that Clinton was over there to get profits for rich Americans, it’s got to be that he’s getting jobs for poor Americans. The discipline on that topic approaches 100 percent. You just can’t find the word “profits”–it’s always “jobs” in the media and the political rhetoric. Remember when Bush went to Japan with a bevy of auto executives a couple of years ago? The big slogan was “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.” General Motors is trying to get jobs for Americans? Is that why they’re closing down twenty-four plants here and have become the biggest employer in Mexico and are now moving to Poland because they want jobs for Americans? No, they want profits for rich Americans, but you can’t say that. And if you tried to say that, first of all, in elite circles, you probably wouldn’t be understood.
What’s amazing is that companies like General Motors will strategically shroud themselves in the American flag, and in a kind of baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie patriotism. And people generally buy into such representations.
Because there is so much indoctrination that many people can’t even understand the word “profits.” If you try using the word “profits” around Harvard, for example, in the Kennedy School of Government, if you say “Clinton’s out there getting profits for rich Americans,” then people would be appalled–“Is he some kind of conspiracy theorist? Marxist? anti-American? or crazed radical?” Even elementary truisms like this, which to someone like Adam Smith, are so obvious he scarcely even bothered to talk about them, are completely beaten out of heads of educated people. In fact, I think it’s worse among the educated sectors than among the uneducated. I’ve talked to all sorts of people, and it would be harder to convince Harvard graduates that this deal with Exxon was for profits than it would be to convince guys on the street. They’d say “Yeah, obviously.” And the reason is, if you’ve been really well educated, meaning well indoctrinated, you can’t even think rational thoughts any longer. They can’t come to you, the words can’t come to you. So, I don’t think Elaine Sciolino is lying, it’s just that the conception of the state working to increase profits for wealthy Americans is inconceivable. You can’t think that thought. If it’s ever expressed, you have to designate it “unthinkable,” with scare words like “conspiracy theory.” And that’s the process of “good education.” People who don’t internalize those values are weeded out along the way. By the time you get to the top, you’ve internalized them.
This phenomenon certainly carries over in the teaching of history, esecially U.S. history. The possibility of thinking about the history of this country in terms of profit and greed, and the resulting violence and even genocide, is eliminated. Those words are seldom even in the textbooks.
Well, it’s a little better than it used to be, but not much. Much of history is just wiped out. We just went through a war in Central America in which hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered, and countries destroyed–huge terror. U.S. operations were condemned by the World Court as international terrorism. It’s nevertheless described in this country as an effort to bring democracy to Central America. How do they get away with that? If you have a deeply indoctrinated educated sector, as we do, you’re not going to get any dissent there, and among the general population who may not be so deeply indoctrinated, they’re marginal. They’re supposed to be afraid of welfare mothers and people coming to attack us, and busy watching football games and so on, so it doesn’t matter what they think. And that’s pretty much the way the educational system and the media work. So the New York Times and the Washington Post, they’re for educated folk, and they sort of beat them on the head with the right ideology. Most of the rest of the media are there just to keep people’s minds on something else.
This practice of constricting what’s acceptable to think and to consider in the academy and public debate is certainly evident in your experiences as a social theorist. Your work has been recognized globally, and you’re seen, historically, as one of the world’s most brilliant intellectuals. However, at the same time, your political critique and insights, have been for the most part marginalized, if not ridiculed, in the United States.
True, but the respectable intellectual culture is not so dramatically different in most countries.
The idea of “public intellectual” in present-day politics is a contradiction. If people are honest in their critique of the system in the United States, they are either declared non-intellectual, or, as you state, derided as “anti-American, Marxist, or conspiracy theorists, ” and removed from the public media.
It’s not really a contradiction; it’s perfectly normal under this system of control. For one thing, I’m on the radio and television and writing articles all over the world–not here. And that’s to be expected. If I started getting public media exposure here, I’d think I were doing something wrong. Why should any system of power offer opportunities to people who are trying to undermine it? That would be crazy. It’s not that this is something new. The people who are called “intellectuals” are those who pretty much serve power. Others may be equally intellectual, but they’re not called intellectuals. And that goes all the way back to the origins of recorded history. Go back to the Bible; who were the people who were respected, and who were the people who were reviled? Well, the people who were respected were the ones who, a thousand years later, were called false prophets. And the ones who were reviled and jailed and beaten and so on are the ones who years later were called prophets. And it goes right up until today. In the United States, people respected Soviet dissidents, but they weren’t respected in Soviet society. There, they respected the commissars. So you are a respected intellectual if you do your job as a part of the system of doctrinal control. Raise questions about it and you’re just not acceptable–you’re anti-American or some sort of shrill and strident something or other. Why was Walter Lippmann one of the “responsible men,” while Eugene Debs was in jail? Was it that Walter Lippmann was smarter than Eugene Debs? Not that I can see. Eugene Debs was just an American working-class leader who raised unacceptable questions, so he was in jail. And Walter Lippmann was a servant of the major powers, so he was respected. And it would be amazing if it was anything else.
But then what is the role of intellectuals, in terms of offering a public counter-discourse that links violence and social decay to structural flaws and undemocratic practices? And, in light of the recent Republican repositioning of power, what are the possibilities of such counter-discourses?
The job of the honest intellectual is to help out people who need help; to be part of the people who are struggling for rights and justice. That’s what you should be doing. But of course, you don’t expect to be rewarded for that.
In terms of teachers in this country who express the desire to work towards more democratic social change, what do you think they could do?
It’s easy for me to talk, but the fact is, if you’re in a classroom and you try to act like an honest independent person, you’d probably be thrown out. The school board won’t like it–especially if it’s made up of wealthy parents, they’re not going to like it. I remember in the 1960s when the student ferment began, we lived in Lexington, a professional, upper middle-class suburb outside Boston. The parents wanted the school to be run like the Marine Corps. They wanted their kids controlled. They didn’t want them to think. Well, there were in those days, maybe more than now, young people coming out of the universities who believed in teaching kids to think, as a means of social transformation. They would do things like elementary school teaching, and some of them tried and they were very good. My son had one of these teachers for a while in elementary school. But it’s very hard to live in the system and survive it. It’s clear what you ought to do, but whether you can survive it is another question.
This question of teaching children to think critically, to better understand and participate in the transformation of the violence, racism, social control, and social disintegration around them, is taken up in critical pedagogy. While you certainly embrace critical education, what do you think are its realistic possibilities here in the United States?
It’s just not going to be allowed, because it’s too subversive. You can teach students to think for themselves in the sciences because you want people to be independent and creative, otherwise, you don’t have science. But science and engineering students are not encouraged to be critical in terms of the political and social implications of their work. In most other fields you want students to be obedient and submissive, and that starts from childhood. Now, teachers can try, and do break out of that, but, they will surely find if they go too far, that as soon as it gets noticed there’ll be pressures to stop them.
There is a problem with this fragmentation of knowledge into separate disciplines in the academy–this is science, that’s politics, this is psychology. Even the word “discipline” is so ironic, alluding to constraint. When I try, in graduate school, to talk about moral development and its inherent connection with the sociohistorical and political structures that we’ve been speaking about, then some people immediately react by saying: “You’re not talking about moral development anymore, now you’re talking about politics, or some other discipline, and we don’t deal with that.” How can you talk about moral development and violence without talking about the larger social, cultural, and economic environments in which people live and develop?
You can’t! On the other hand, if you simply talk about the world in the accepted ways, that would not be called politics, that would be being reasonable. It becomes “ideological” or extremist when it deviates from the accepted patterns. The term “ideological” is an interesting one. If you repeat the cliches of the propaganda system, that’s not ideological. On the other hand, if you question them, that’s ideological and very strident or anti-American. Anti-American is an interesting expression, because the accusation of being anti-nation is used typically in totalitarian societies, for example, the former Soviet Union accused dissidents of being anti-Soviet. But try “anti-Italian” or “anti-Belgian,” people in Milan or Brussels would laugh.
The term “propaganda” is neither used in the media nor the academy in reference to this country’s practices–as if propaganda only functions in places like the former Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.
Yeah, like the invasion of Haiti, or whatever you want to call that thing. The big thinkers in the press presented what they called “historical background.” R. W. Apple over at the New York Times wrote an article on “perspectives” and explained that for hundreds of years, the benevolent Westerners have been trying to bring some order to Haitian society, where groups with homicidal tendencies are attacking one another and are heavily armed, like right now. So you’ve got two “homicidal gangs” attacking each other–the people who are getting murdered in the slums, and the troops whom we trained and armed who were killing them. Then he goes on about how, at different periods in history, both Napoleon and Woodrow Wilson tried to do “good things” for the Haitian people, which didn’t work. We are used to the fact that the Wilson intervention, which was murderous and brutal, was regarded as sweet charity, but Napoleon? That was one of the most murderous invasions of a period that was not known for its gentility, but it must be that “good” Westerners were trying to bring order to this society. And David Broder of the Washington Post wrote the same thing. That’s “history”–the idealistic Americans are trying to help out. But they’re baffled by the violence of the society that has no experience with democracy, and so on and so forth. I mean the relation of that to history–it’s 180 degrees off. But if you repeat that stuff, that’s not ideological, that’s being “responsible.” David Landes, a well-known Harvard historian, wrote an article on Haiti some years back, in which he described the Marine invasion–the Wilson intervention–as very beneficial to Haiti. In fact, it had a devastating effect on the society, dismantling the Parliamentary system, and killing thousands of people, forcing them to accept laws that let U.S. corporations buy up the land and turn it into plantations, reintroducing virtual slavery. It also left a military force to attack the people–it was monstrous. This from a leading historian–but that’s not ideological. On the other hand, if you tell the truth, that’s ideological. That makes sense, in some strange way.
Fostering historical amnesia and refusing to acknowledge the violent and hegemonic nature of their own ideology allow those who have historically run this country to perpetuate the myth that this is a democratic society. Your work has shown that U.S. international political and economic practices have actually destroyed what you refer to as “good examples–prospects for real progress towards meaningful democracy and meeting human needs” in “third-world” countries. Such examples are falsely represented to the American public as posing a threat to our security and well-being, and people generally buy into that. They actually believe that they live in a truly democratic society.
I suppose that around Harvard they do! But if you look at the polls, half the population thinks that both political parties should be dismantled. Is that living in democracy? What you get in off-year elections is about a third of the population voting–this year, around 39 percent. That’s because people just regard the whole electoral process as a farce. In fact, there are regular Gallup polls in which people are asked, “Who do you think runs the government?” And about 50 percent regularly say that the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Try that in the Harvard Faculty Club. The official story is that the political system is pluralistic, everyone’s part of some different interest or pressure group. It’s not a few big interests looking out for themselves. You have to be uneducated to be able to see that.
Given the implications of your work and what we’ve said in the last hour, what are the possibilities for fulfilling a progressive vision of a future social order–one that actively incorporates the majority of the population in nonviolent political struggle, resistance, and social transformation?
As everyone has always known, the best way to defend civil liberties is to collectively build a movement for social change tat has broad-based appeal, that encourages free and open discussion, and offers a wide range of possibilities for social agency. The potential for such a movement surely exists. Many positive changes have taken place in the last thirty years as the result of popular movements organized around such issues as civil rights, peace, feminism, and the environment. If this struggle ever becomes a mass movement of the oppressed and exploited on an international level, the impulse to contribute to it may intensify, growing both from moral pressure and the desire for self-fulfillment in a decent and humane society. One immediate concern of industrial democracies is the rational and humane use of the Earth’s resources, on which the United States continues to do very poorly, and which, as exploitation, is another form of violence. “Broad-based” also implies that along with the general public; scientists, engineers, technicians, and skilled workers, educators, writers, and artists also need to be deeply involved in the development of the intellectual resources necessary for providing plausible, concrete, short- and long-term solutions to the problems of our advanced industrial society.
You have stated in the past that any system of power, even a fascist dictatorship, is responsive to public dissidence. In the context of everyday life in this country, where does such dissention begin when the deck is so clearly stacked against popular struggle?
The general population has lots of cards. People can organize, initiate demonstrations, write letters, and vote. They can form unions and other grass-roots organizations, political clubs, even an opposition political party so that we’ll at least have a two-party system. Citizens can organize to press a position and pressure their representatives about it. Elections can also matter. The systems of private tyranny–totalitarian in character–are also not there by natural law, but by human decisions. They can be dismantled and democratized. What concentrated privilege can’t live with is sustained pressure that keeps building, organizations that keep doing things, people that keep learning lessons from the last time and doing it better the next time. Students and others with similar privilege–and it is privilege–can also do their own research by going back to original sources in public libraries. Real research and inquiry is always a collective activity. Such efforts can make a large contribution to changing consciousness, increasing insight and understanding, and leading to constructive action.
Well, as you conclude in What Uncle Sam Really Wants, “We don’t know that honest and dedicated effort will be enough to solve or even mitigate our problems; however, we can be quite confident that the lack of such efforts will spell disaster.”
We would like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude for your generous contribution to this special issue on violence and youth, and also to recognize and celebrate your lifelong commitment to the struggle for justice and the possibilities for human liberation.